POST-EVANGELICALISM CONFRONTS THE POSTMODERN AGE
A Review of The Challenge of Postmodernism
ZANE C. HODGES
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
In the cloistered halls of academia one of the newer buzz words is postmodernism. Postmodernism expresses the widely held view that modernity has somehow come to an end and that we have entered the postmodern age. Obviously there is a kind of pretentiousness to this perspective, but perhaps after all this concept is true.
That is certainly the opinion of most of the contributors to the volume entitled, The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, ed. David S. Dockery (Wheaton, IL, BridgePoint, the academic imprint of Victor Books, 1995). Here in a collection of no less than 23 different essays, stretching over 400 pages, a variety of writers from a variety of schools assess what postmodernism means for the evangelical community.
In the process of evaluating the present and future impact of postmodern ideas, the writers also open an unintended window on the state of evangelical thought in America today. The view afforded by this window is far from reassuring. Thus in this review article we will not only talk about postmodernism but also about what could be described as post-evangelicalism.
I. What Is Postmodernism?
Many readers of this journal have probably already heard of postmodernism. I met the concept recently in an editorial in a major newspaper. It has become one of those floating terms in the language which are recognizable but still somewhat vague in meaning. The writers in this book for the most part are fairly well agreed as to its specific significance.
According to these writers postmodernism indicates the end of the modern period, which began with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and extended into the latter half of the twentieth century, by some reckonings into the 1980s. In the first of his two essays, Thomas C. Oden of Drew University makes this definite statement:
By postmodern, we mean the course of actual history following the death of modernity. By modernity we mean the period, the ideology, and the malaise of the time from 1789 to 1989, from the Bastille to the Berlin Wall.1
By this timeframe, the postmodern era has barely begun. We might well ask whether it is not a bit heady to announce the dawn of a new age within its first decade!
Most of the contributors to this volume would agree with the assessment expressed by David S. Dockery of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when he writes:
As we move into the twenty-first century, a new way of viewing the world has emerged. The “modern” way of thinking, that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has become obsolete. The modern ideas are no longer relevant.2
This change of thinking, however, turns out to be primarily a rejection of modernity’s confidence in human reason as a tool for attaining truth as well as of its optimistic belief in the inevitability of human progress. According to Oden, among the casualties are modern empiricism and idealism which “in 200 years emerged, gained dominance, peaked, and receded.”3 Oden follows shortly with this withering statement:
The enchantment of modernity is characterized by technological messianism, enlightenment idealism, quantifying empiricism, and the smug fantasy of inevitable human progress. We have fooled ourselves on all counts.4
Christians, however, should not rejoice prematurely in the demise of modern thought, since the perspective that replaces it in so-called postmodernism is equally inhospitable to Christian faith. In his own interesting assessment of postmodern thought, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, points out that the postmodern perspective rejects all “meta-discourses” which claim universal validity. In the postmodern worldview, therefore, it is maintained that “universal truth claims are impossible. All discourse is particular, limited, and insular, and it inevitably breaks down into the competing language games operating among different communities of meaning.”5
It will be obvious to the reader by this point, that postmodernism is in fact a form of radical skepticism about the knowability of truth. Another way to say this is that we are in a period marked by a crisis of epistemology. The routes taken by so-called modernity to the attainment of knowledge have proved to be dead-end streets. The optimism of modernity about the attainability of universal truth has been replaced by a profound skepticism which amounts to a definitive defeatism. Man can only attain relative knowledge with limited validity for himself and others of his community, but he must abandon the effort to find truth universally applicable to all men.
Clearly in so far as this climate prevails (and the writers agree that it does, at least in academic circles), Christianity’s claim to possess universal truth to which all humanity is accountable will face tough sledding.
II. Evaluating Postmodernism
One effect of postmodernism is to give fresh impetus to an interpretive process known as deconstruction. In deconstruction the truth claims of any given text are torn down so as to reveal the supposed biases which underlie it and which invalidate those claims. By this method Western history, for example, can be treated as a means by which the white male seeks to assert his power over other cultural communities.
Carl F. H. Henry, also of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes deconstruction like this:
Deconstructionism strips reality and written texts of inherent meaning. It reduces language to but a social construct mirroring the interpreter’s personal perspective. Consequently, every interpreter is free to handle the text selectively, that is, to deconstruct it, and to refashion favored segments into fresh readings that reflect one’s own preferences without evident anchorage in the text.6
It is plain that such an approach to the Scriptures robs them of any inherent authority and places the interpreter above the text rather than under it. What the interpreter will hear is not the voice of the Lord, but his own voice. And in postmodernism that is all the interpreter really wants to hear! From one point of view postmodernism is the ultimate attempt to place man in authority over the Scriptures rather than place the Scriptures in authority over man.
This is hardly new. After all, modernity placed human reason and scientific knowledge above the Scriptures. In postmodernism this effort simply becomes more crass.
Although some wish to begin the period of postmodernism at the end of the 1980s (as we saw earlier), the term postmodernism is said to have been first used by John Cobb in 1964. But as early as 1960, Dick Jellema had spoken of “the post-modern mind.”7
In addition, a number of earlier names are associated with the rise of postmodern thought, among them being Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault.8 The case of Foucault has special interest. Mohler has this significant assessment of him:
At this point the example of Michel Foucault is instructive. One of the most celebrated figures of postmodernism for the last twenty years, Foucault was himself a period piece of the Paris intelligentsia. His deconstruction of the moral tradition was demonstrated to the observing world by his own radically “liberated” homosexual lifestyle, his extended arguments for pederasty, and his experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs.
In Foucault, the Enlightenment project reaches its dead-end. Evident here is a shift from the radical subjectivism of the Enlightenment’s left wing to the absolute deconstruction of meaning when radical subjectivism reaches its conclusion. Foucault’s famous notion of the “death of the author” is perhaps the clearest rejection of any objective meaning. Communal understandings are undermined and subverted. All that remains is the task of ideological and moral genealogy, a task Foucault believed was left unfinished with the death of Nietzsche.9
This type of thing sounds very much like Romans 1, where Paul writes:
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness…(Rom. 1: 28, 29a).
A Christian assessment of postmodernism, therefore, must take its moral component fully into account. The urge to sexual freedom and perversion is by no means unrelated to the rejection of universal truth and universal standards of morality. The postmodern mind does not “like to retain God in (its) knowledge.” Thus to dismiss His knowability is also to dismiss the moral code of biblical revelation and to set man “free” (or so he thinks). We shall be greatly deceived if we think that rational arguments will be effective in restoring a belief in ultimate standards and values. In the postmodern society we shall have to depend (as we always should have done) on the convicting and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit.
As some of the writers in this volume indicate, a possible plus for the evangelical movement is that we may be able to escape the spell of rationalism and empiricism by which modernity enthralled some evangelical thinkers. In addition, as John A. Sims of Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee, has noted, “Defending against the claim that scientific rationality represents the only legitimate method of enquiry into reality…is an intellectual burden that evangelicals no longer have to bear.”10
One of the more penetrating critiques of postmodernism found among the essayists of The Challenge of Postmodernism is that of C. Ben Mitchell, Director of Biomedical and Life Issues for the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He describes postmodernism as “rabidly self-refuting.” This, he says, is because “by denying the possibility of truth, it effectively squelches every effort to set forth, recognize, or aspire to truth.”11 He goes on to note:
Self-avowed pluralists who espouse this pluralist doctrine thus become the worst form of imperialist—denying to others what they themselves claim to have. That is, epistemological agnosticism is, in fact, a covert claim of knowing the truth about truth. “That no one can or should claim to know the truth” is a truth claim.12
To put it another way, radical skepticism about the possibility of knowing universal truth is itself an act of faith! The radical skeptic can say that he himself does not know the truth, and that might be true enough. But the claim that he cannot know the truth is an unverifiable assertion. All that he really ought to say is that he does not believe he can know the truth, but that in fact he could be wrong!
Christians are sometimes afraid to engage skeptical people in the marketplace of ideas. But they should not be. The rejection of knowable universal truth is a perverse act of faith based mainly on man’s reluctance to know it—since to know truth is to be accountable to it. Man’s rejection of accountability is in fact the bitter root from which postmodern thought has grown. The Christian who understands this is well-armed to challenge his postmodern world with the claims of a Gospel of grace intended for every individual and to allow the Holy Spirit to bring to men the necessary conviction and illumination.
God is not defeated by the relativism of postmodern thought any more than He was defeated by the rationalism and empiricism of modernity. God’s Word remains “like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer 23:29).
One of the most effective critiques of postmodernism among all the essayists in this volume is offered by its only female contributor, Kathryn R. Ludwigson of Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa Falls, Georgia. Her essay is entitled, “Postmodernism: A Declaration of Bankruptcy.” As a professor of literature Ludwigson is particularly attuned to the postmodernist view of language, which she scorns. Her description of this is a tour de force:
How then did language originate? Human beings playing word games with each other, enjoying a playful itinerary of words only, answer the postmodernists, for the imposition of meaning on a thing is really only an illusion, nothing more than an interpretation of some other thing. This in turn will be seen only as an interpretation as well: not mirrors (re)presenting reality as the moderns had said, but a labyrinth of mirrors reflecting neither the outer world of nature nor the inner world of subjectivity, reflecting only endless circularity—an ex-centric worldview. There are no facts, remember; the world is an illusion. Derrida, the most popular exponent of postmodernism, has said: “There is nothing outside the text; all is textual play with no connection with original truth” [italics original].13
This view represents, of course, an unbridled attack on special revelation as found in the Scriptures.
The modern period often trained its guns on special revelation, too. Sometimes it was said that the limitations of human language guaranteed that divine truth could only have a partial and flawed disclosure in so faulty a vehicle. At other times, as in existentialism, the early Christian encounter with reality was muddied by the culture-bound perspectives of the first century writers of the NT. Modern man was called upon to bridge the gap between the biblical writer’s horizon and the horizon of the modern interpreter. A literal reading of NT revelation was unthinkable to the modern mind and thus (to use the term associated with Rudolf Bultmann) there was a need to “demythologize” that revelation to make it acceptable to modern man.
Now postmodernism has taken the final step and has dismissed language itself as a legitimate conveyor of truth. To the postmodernist, all communication is theory-laden and can never point to ultimate reality of any kind. It is, however, interesting to note that postmodernists continue to try to tell us this by using language. Ought they not to give up the communication process altogether? The fact that they do not indicates that the philosophy of postmodernism defies common sense. The belief that we can truly communicate—even about ultimate truths—is deeply engrained in the human psyche and in human experience. That the postmodernists deny this belief, while continuing to act upon it, reduces their perspective to something dangerously close to farce.
III. The Evangelical Response
In this reviewer’s judgment, Evangelicals need not worry about the postmodern age as if we had entered a period when evangelism will be more difficult than ever. On the contrary, as we have seen, postmodernism is rightly called “rabidly self-defeating.” An ideology that defies both common sense and human experience has little going for it. It is in fact a large target for Christian witness which is designed to expose just that aspect of it. The question, “How can you be sure you can’t be sure?” is a worthy opening gambit for a discussion with intellectually-oriented unbelievers.
On the other hand, until postmodernism has more deeply infected society as a whole, Christians will probably find it poses little or no barrier to our witness to the ordinary man in the street. It is not yet clear whether this current academic fad will become more than a fad and will characterize a long period of Western intellectualism, or whether it will pass rapidly from the scene and prove itself to be indeed a fad and nothing more.
It has been characteristic of American scholars in the evangelical movement to hop aboard any widely popular trend in academia and to ride it as though it were the wave of the future. Perhaps postmodernism is the wave of the future: the essayists in The Challenge of Postmodernism, for the most part, seem to think so. But that remains to be seen.
An alternative possibility is that postmodernism is, as Kathryn Ludwigson suggests, simply a manifestation of the bankruptcy of modernism. From this perspective, postmodernism may be viewed as expressing the philosophical and intellectual exhaustion of the Western world. Such an exhaustion seems to have characterized the Greco-Roman world as the First Advent of the Savior approached. It may well be that the void represented by postmodern thought will be filled by the final philosophical and religious lie, namely, the new world religion to be sponsored at the end of the age by the Beast and the False Prophet of Revelation.
In the meanwhile, as we await the Second Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, what should we be doing? Here again, Ludwigson challenges us with her approach:
More diligently, more fervently, more prayerfully than ever before we need to keep preaching the truth of the Scriptures, inspired by God and suitable for instruction, correction, and reproof (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). We must show the flaws of the post-modernist “thinking.” Recognize the lies of Lucifer in the Garden: “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). We have to diligently catechize our children, young people, and adults so that they really know what they believe. And we must make use of the plethora of multimedia available in our increasingly video-dependent culture. The medium may not be the message, but for the MTV generation and beyond the medium must be one that rivals the vehicles of delivery in the popular culture.
In summary, the Apostle Paul’s admonishment is ever the more relevant in dealing with the postmodern context: “when they will not endure sound doctrine”…then “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 4:3; 1:13, KJV).14
It would be hard to state it better than this!
IV. The Rise of Post-Evangelicalism
There is no doubt that The Challenge of Postmodernism is a stimulating and informative discussion of the postmodernist perspective. Anyone who wishes an effective introduction to the subject will find this volume easily fills that need. The contributors, as well as the editor, deserve our thanks for making these essays available.
But not everything in this book will leave all Evangelicals feeling comfortable. On the contrary there is a great deal here that makes one wonder where evangelicalism is really heading. More than that, it seems to this reviewer that we meet here a form of evangelicalism (not in every writer of course) that is disturbing. It would not be amiss to describe this form as post-evangelicalism.
This is no more evident anywhere than in the concluding essay. The writer is Thomas C. Oden, who alone among the contributors is allowed to offer two essays—the second and the twenty-third. The fact that Oden is allowed to speak the last word is probably significant. Oden it appears has had an unusual intellectual journey. Let him tell this in his own words:
After spending more than half my adult life as an avid advocate and defender of modernity (from Marx through Nietzsche and Freud to Bultmann, with stops along the way with Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Alexander Lowen, Martin Heidegger, and Eric Berne), what has changed for me is the steady slow growth toward consensual ancient classical Christianity with its proximate continuity, catholicity, and apostolicity. This has elicited from me a growing resistance of faddism, novelty, heresy, anarchism, antinomianism, pretensions of discontinuity, revolutionary bravado, and nonhistorical idealism.15
Of particular interest to most JOTGES readers is the reference to “antinomianism” which, in the contemporary theological context, is likely to refer in some way to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary gives as its only definition of antinomian the following: “A member of a Christian sect holding that faith alone is necessary to salvation.” Its current use by those of Reformed persuasion is not much different than this dictionary definition, although it often carries overtones of licentiousness. Oden’s reference to it is troubling.
Our concern with Oden’s perspective is not lessened by the concluding paragraph of this essay (and thus of the entire book!) where he writes as follows:
Finally, we plead the aesthetic beauty of retrogression [italics added], not to twentieth century fundamentalism, not to American revivalism of the nineteenth-century, not to the eighteenth-century pietism, nor to the seventeenth-century Protestant orthodox scholasticism, or to sixteenth-century classic Reformation teaching, but to the future through the route of classic Christian exegesis of the first five centuries, the ancient ecumenical tradition to whom all Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Liberal—have a right to appeal.16
One is tempted to ask what a statement like this is doing in a volume purporting to represent evangelical thought. As T. F. Torrance has shown in his volume, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, the Pauline doctrine of grace had already been lost. But on reflection one is tempted to say that Oden is reading the tea leaves correctly. The recent, controversial efforts by some Evangelicals to find common ground with Roman Catholics is a fairly obvious signal that significant change is brewing in the evangelical community. Oden simply reflects a perspective that has gained favor with many other Evangelicals to one degree or another. But if Oden has spent half of his “adult life” espousing causes associated with Marx, Nietzsche, Bultmann, Heidegger, etc., we may be excused for having no incentive to follow him on this latest turn in his thinking either.
A somewhat similar appeal is made by Kurt A. Richardson of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes:
Based upon the recognition of the longing for a recovered vitality of Christianity, there are fellow believers throughout the diversity of denominations who need our collaboration under the singular lordship of Christ. Whether this is post-liberal or post-fundamentalist, the bitter heritage of elitism and separationism must be abandoned. In addition, a global perspective of the church—the incomparable international network of Christians—will require a determined commitment to the irenic principle of dwelling at peace with those who stand under the lordship of Christ and His commission to the church.17
This comes as close as almost any of the essayists come to defining what they mean by a “Christian,” but the statement is far from clear. Here, it would appear, the criterion employed is whether the person “stands under the lordship of Christ.” But in theory this could be said of the members of almost any Christian communion—Protestant, Catholic, charismatic, etc.—quite irrespective of their answer to the biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?” As Philip Janowsky has pointed out in his little book, The Evangelical Essential: What Must I Do to be Saved (reviewed elsewhere in this journal), the doctrine of justification by faith alone must be that essential. When it is not, we may question whether we have true evangelicalism at all.
Sadly missing from the volume under review is any clear-cut insistence that the truth-claims of Christianity include an emphasis on what our Lord called the “narrow gate” to eternal life (Matt 7:13). That is to say, there is only one way of salvation: by faith alone in Christ alone. If modern evangelicalism embraces the view that there is considerable latitude possible in expressing the Gospel to a postmodern world, it will be exposing its own inherent doubts about the possibility of knowing the biblical Gospel in its exactitude. By so much, it will then deserve to be called post-evangelicalism.
Especially disappointing in this volume is the essay entitled, “The Pauline Gospel in a Postmodern Age.” Its author is another faculty member at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mark A. Seifrid. Seifrid clearly yields ground to the contemporary flow of Pauline scholarship, the impetus for which is especially found in the writings of E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn. This mood-swing in Pauline thought attempts to soften Paul’s rejection of “works” to a rejection of self-righteous, Pharisaical works done for merit. But Paul, it is claimed, does not deny that works must flow from justification if one is to be finally accepted before God.
Thus Seifrid can write about Qumran that “the Qumran community attributed a sanitizing, atoning efficacy to its deeds. Yet it did so without in any way sacrificing its sola gratia stance: God was the source of these works and the salvation that accompanied them.”18 The reader will be interested to know that these remarks follow a quotation from the Qumran document 1QS 11:2, 3, which reads:
For I belong to the God of my vindication and the perfection of my way is in his hand with the virtue of my heart. And with my righteous deeds [italics in Seifrid’s quotation] he will wipe away my transgressions.19
If, as Seifrid claims, this amounts to sola gratia, it is not Paul’s concept of sola gratia in any sense whatsoever (not to mention the great Reformers’ view). The confusion that now reigns in Pauline studies among Evangelicals goes a long way toward explaining why many of them have no problem with a rapprochement with Roman Catholicism. The ecumenical spirit reflected above in Oden has many proponents among Evangelicals. The danger is that anything resembling true evangelicalism may be submerged in many Christian communities if this trend toward theological accommodation continues.
The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement is well worth reading. It is a helpful warning about the dangers of postmodernism. But this explicit warning has a subtext not intended by the writers. This subtext is an urgent cautionary reminder of the dangerous direction that the evangelical movement has taken.
1Thomas C. Oden, “The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality,” The Challenge of Postmodernism[hereafter in these notes: TCOP], 20.
2David S. Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” TCOP, 13.
3Oden, “Death of Modernity,” TCOP, 24.
5R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Integrity of the Evangelical Tradition and the Challenge of the Postmodern Paradigm,” TCOP, 71.
6Carl F. H. Henry, “Postmodernism: The New Spectre?” TCOP, 39.
7Ibid., 35 and 51.
10John A. Sims, “Postmodernism: The Apologetic Imperative,” TCOP, 329.
11C. Ben Mitchell, “Is That All There Is? Moral Ambiguity in a Postmodern Pluralistic Culture,” TCOP, 272.
13Kathryn R. Ludwigson, “Postmodernism: A Declaration of Bankruptcy,” TCOP, 283.
15Thomas C. Oden, “So What Happens after Modernity? A Postmodern Agenda for Evangelical Theology,” TCOP, 405.
17Kurt A. Richardson, “Disorientations in Christian Belief: The Problem of De-traditionalization in the Postmodern Context,” TCOP, 65.
18Mark A. Seifrid, “The Pauline Gospel in a Postmodern Age,” TCOP, 199.